When the fish arrived, I knew I was at Adam Evans’ new restaurant. It was a whole snapper, a fish that could easily feed two. It was deep-fried so that the golden, crunchy body stood up on the plate as if still swimming through the water, tail in mid-swing.
I’d met a fish like this before, back when Evans was the chef at the Optimist, though I remember that one being dressed in Asian flavors. This fish at Brezza Cucina had a full-on Italian treatment: a pool of agrodolce jus, spicy Calabrese peppers, sweet basil leaves and wood-grilled rapini.
It was like running into an old friend with a new style. I happily dove into the plate, picking each delectable morsel of fish from every last bone. I know I said it was big enough for two, but hardly anyone else at the table got a bite.
Prior to putting a fork into that fish, dining at Brezza Cucina felt like I’d mostly been at a Jonathan Waxman restaurant. Brezza Cucina is a collaborative effort between Evans, a talented young chef who has made his name mostly here in Atlanta, and Waxman, whose career stretches back several decades and across the continent from Chez Panisse in California to the influential Jams restaurant and, later, Barbuto in New York.
Waxman has been on a national restaurant-opening spree in recent years, including a reboot of Jams in New York, Adele’s in Nashville and Brezza Cucina in Atlanta. A similarly named restaurant, Brezza Emporio and Pizzeria, is planned for San Francisco later this year. Evans apparently is the local talent Waxman has brought in to run the Atlanta ship in his fleet.
All of those names and projects (and, to some degree, Evans) aside, the heart of Brezza is Waxman’s legacy. On a menu, you might sum that up in three dishes: the gnocchi, the roast chicken, the kale salad. Waxman has been serving some variation of those simple, single-ingredient-focused dishes throughout his career. At Brezza, it isn’t hard to taste why.
The gnocchi served here is all about texture, a soft, almost airy — but still richly satisfying — dumpling of potatoes and flour. Those get coated and slightly browned in butter and tossed with hunks of earthy hen of the woods mushrooms, but all of that is just architecture to bolster the beauty of those gnocchi. They are such a delight.
I was less taken with the roast chicken, a plate composed of a leg, thigh and split breast in a pool of olive oil and parsley. It’s a fine dish, simple and filling, but frankly unremarkable. (There are remarkable simple roast chickens out there, and they sing with perfectly crisp skin, deep seasoning and moist, tender meat.) It didn’t help that the breast was one of those nearly turkey-sized, giant hunks cooked into dry, bland strings.
On the other hand, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, I loved the kale salad. Kale tends to be one those greens that I believe requires either fashionable delusion or an ascetic diet to appreciate, but here the leaves are chopped small and very tender, dressed in a deeply savory anchovy vinaigrette, tossed with expertly crunchy, golden-brown breadcrumbs, and finished with a snow of pecorino.
Unlike the roast chicken, which reminded me of better versions, this kale salad made me wonder if Waxman’s recipe is the perfect one that everyone else has been trying and failing to replicate for so long.
Waxman’s Italy-by-way-of-California style is supported on the menu by familiar Italian nibbles: a bowl of olives, a plate of excellent salumi sourced from Heywood’s in Marietta, a few small, simple pizzas cooked in the Neapolitan style to a light char. These are fine, easy crowd pleasers.
Brezza certainly needs crowd pleasers, considering its enormous dining room, which stretches from the Williams-Sonoma store that anchors one end of Ponce City Market far into the market. On a Saturday night, Brezza can and will fill its 170 seats to capacity.
That seems to be a little much for the wait staff, which can be brusque and less than warm when pressed to the limit. Better is a calm weekday lunch, when sunlight fills the room from giant windows facing Ponce de Leon Avenue and the crowds are much more manageable.
But best is when you can find Evans, that young hotshot chef taking back seat to Waxman’s legacy, making his mark on the menu.
I was very happy to eat that Italian revision of his whole fried fish. But, maybe the best bite I had in all my meals at Brezza was a wood-roasted Alabama oyster, with a lovely touch of smoke and subtle warmness, swimming in melted butter spiked with balsamic vinegar.
It was a little bit Southern, a little bit Italian, and completely delicious.